Live Review: Public Service Broadcasting at Black Cat Backstage, Washington DC – 4th March 2014

By on Thursday, 6th March 2014 at 2:00 pm

“What’s not to like about two guys in tweed?” So sayeth my cousin’s wife whose daughter I brought with me Tuesday night to see Public Service Broadcasting make their Washington, DC debut. The duo are a little difficult to explain about, aren’t they? They certainly don’t sound like anything you’d hear on top 40 radio. There’s an educational element in their usage of public information films, but at the same time, it’s the spoken word from these reels of yesteryear that serve as lyrics, if you could call them that, so both of those parts are very unusual. Before Mumford and Sons, you could argue having a banjo onstage at a rock concert was unique as well, but not so much now, with all these Mumford wannabes running round.

That said, after watching Public Service Broadcasting up close and personal in my own hometown, I got a very different feeling about them than when Martin took me last May to see them play a packed Cluny. (Read Martin’s eloquent description of exactly what they do in his review of that show, as I could never get anywhere close to that brilliance in writing about them.) Whereas that gig in Newcastle was stifling and I felt like my neck was going to give way any second, spending the entire night craning my neck upwards to see them playing, Black Cat Backstage’s less than a metre tall stage made my second viewing of them all the more relaxing and intimate.

When I arrived, I was just a tad concerned. The place was pretty empty. Oh dear. Please, DC, do not embarrass us as a city, will more people show up already? This is an important band! As gear was moved and swapped round, the Backstage started to fill up, interestingly with mostly gig goers in their 30s and older, generally male and actively swilling beer. This is not my usual crowd; I’m usually surrounded by kids who are younger than me, with Xs on their hands. As in the show in Newcastle, synth master J. Willgoose Esq. relied on the mechanical recorded voices in his sequencer to say, “hello!…Washington, DC!” I knew it was coming, of course, but the rest of the punters didn’t, and rather than be an annoying gimmick that fell flat with the Americans, the tinny voice greeting all of us throughout the set was met with much laughter. Thumbs up. Since seeing the band in Newcastle, the band have been writing new material, including ‘Elfstedentocht Parts I and II’; we were treated to part I live, prefaced with the robotic intro of “Last year we wrote two songs about ice skating in Dutch.” ::pause:: “Here’s one of them now!” Ha! (The songs were actually written at the request of a Dutch culture festival who wanted some original songs about a famous ice skating race.)

Beyond the actual use of the archived sound clips and the plethora of instruments and samples that the duo uses to create their sound live, I think some people would be surprised that they’re actually a pretty groovy act and in some cases, they show off their dance colours more than their rock ones. ‘ROYGBIV’, while taking advantage of forward-thinking spoken thoughts about the future and the importance of colour in it, is a rhythmic tour de force live, definitely much more dancey live than on record. The matchless star of their debut album ‘Inform – Educate – Entertain’, ‘Spitfire’, has its rockier moments with its guitar lines, but underlying it all is its driving beat provided by drummer/percussionist Wrigglesworth that naturally gets toes tapping and heads a-bopping. Clearly, that is going to be the key to the band winning fans at SXSW next week and further afield. As song after song were played, the audience’s reaction exponentially increased, and when they announced they were playing their final song, a loud sigh of disappointment circulated the room. With its appropriate chilly keyed notes, yet also with its expansive and hopeful musical story, the synthtastic ‘Everest’ ended their first-ever set in the Nation’s Capital on a high note.

As I was chatting with Willgoose after the show, I told him that the number of bodies moving during their set was a testament of how great they actually were live, as it is often very difficult to get stoic Washington crowds moving. He then folded his arms over his chest and said, “y’mean like this, like London crowds?” That made me laugh, while also making me homesick. But I felt encouraged by the turnout and such positive reaction to Public Service Broadcasting’s first of what will be many shows in our city. The song ‘Everest’ concludes with the words, “Why should a man climb Everest? Because it is there.” I find the words very prophetic: PSB, along with several other bands we will be seeing at SXSW, will be trying to break America and become a success stateside and then hopefully, globally, and they can try to do this because they’ve received kind funding from UK Trade and Investment. As long as UKTI keeps worthy bands’ dreams alive and shows they understand the value of real music, the sky’s the limit.

After the cut: the set list.

Public Service Broadcasting’s Set List
London Can Take It
The Now Generation
Signal 30
Inform – Educate – Entertain
Theme from PSB
Night Mail
Elfstendentocht, Part 2
If War Should Come
Lit Up

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